Luis Orduz

Practical refactoring: Abstractions

In my last post, we did a basic rundown of a very convoluted short algorithm to make more explicit what was actually happening in it. That by itself goes a long way in improving how readable the code is, and thus makes it easier to maintain. I've seen small improvements like that be welcome enthusiastically among different teams, but we can go further.

I remember a project I worked on where there was basically no separation of concerns between request handling boilerplate, database connection boilerplate and actual business logic; everything was handled within the same functions. It was a nightmare. I was hired to create some new APIs, but it took me just a week of trying to create new handlers like that to decide that such was no way to live. I took it upon myself to refactor that code. It bears reasserting that when refactoring, it's good—and often enough—to first reach for the lowest hanging fruit and in that code the easiest improvement was, of course, separating code that dealt with different things into different functions, and calling those new functions from the old ones.

Now, the small script we're going through does really only one thing, but that doesn't mean we can't divide some responsibilities by way of abstracting away some code not directly related to that one thing. If we do this, we improve the code in at least three ways:

  1. The algorithm itself becomes more immediately obvious; it's easier to understand what the code does.
  2. By abstracting the supporting/boilerplate code, we make it possible to reuse those same structures somewhere else.
  3. This gives us a opportunity to bring the code in step with the domain: using names specific to what we're doing instead of talking exclusively about basic data types.

The abstractions

Something I didn't mention in my last post is that the small method we're refactoring is actually part of a basic genetic algorith I implemented for fun. Well, genetic algorithms deal with populations, so what if instead dealing with "lists" of "strings", we create an actual Population class/data type that does what we need our populations to do:

class Population(list):
    def __iter__(self) -> Iterable[Self]:
        return iter(self[x::2] for x in range(2))

Not complicated, now we know that a population is a list, but one that when iterated just produces two sublists: the two halves of the original. We can improve it further, but this is enough for what we need1.

We have our population, but our genetic algorithm is not of random things; it specifically looks for individuals that match a given root individual, with the purpose of each generation to be closer to that individual.

Let's give it a try:

class Individual(str):
    def __and__(self, other: Self):
        return sum(ch_s == ch_o for ch_s, ch_o in zip(self, other))

For our "model"2 we know that we need a specific type of string that when compared with another will return the number of identical characters. So we do just that: create a str subclass that can "intersect" with other strings of the same type, and give a numeric value representing how well they match.

With these two abstractions alone, our method improves considerably:

def get_best_matches(self) -> WinnerPair:
    # self.population: Population[Individual]
    # self.root: Individual
    winners = WinnerPair()
    for half in self.population:
        winner = max(half, key=lambda ind: ind & self.root)
        winners.append(winner)
    return winners

I like it. We get each member of the winner pair from half of the population, and notice how the code doesn't show things we don't need to know to understand the steps:

  1. How do we get each half of the population? That doesn't matter for understanding the algorithm; we just need to know that we're getting a half. How that half is gathered is up to the implementtion in Population which we can check if we need to, or we could change it if we have to: Like instead of appending the odd-positioned items to a half and the even-positioned to the other half, we could just literally split it at the central index.
  2. To get the winner we're comparing how well is the intersection between each individual and the root (self.root, renamed from self.word3, in this case). How is that intersection calculated/found? That's entirely an implementation detail, which again we can check and/or change in Individual if we have to. We could even make individuals a different type instead of strings, make a comparison appropriate for that type, and we wouldn't need to change anything in this method.

Notice that, at the end of my previous post, I said that we could use abstractions instead of relying on comments to tell us what the data types are supposed to represent. There are still comments in this piece of code... but that comment is just to note what abstractions we're using, and is there just for description purposes. In the full code it would be completely redundant, since the types of self.population and self.root would already be defined somewhere else. Likely at the top of the class this method belongs to.

Nonetheless, we could still make those comments explicit in the code4 by way of, say, making them arguments to the method. However, that would no longer be a refactoring5... But we can cheat a little bit:

def get_winners(
  population: Population[Individual], root: Individual
) -> WinnerPair:
    winners = WinnerPair()
    for half in population:
        winner = max(half, key=lambda ind: ind & root)
        winners.append(winner)
    return winners

def get_best_matches(self) -> WinnerPair:
    return get_winners(self.population, self.root)

Basically, we create a new function that isn't necessarily tied to a class (note the lack of self) and we call that function from our method. This gives us the potential advantage of reusing that very same winner finding logic somewhere else if the opportunity arises.

Hindsight

So there you have it, we improved the code, considerably, just by moving a few lines around and making what we're doing and using more explicit. It goes without saying that this would help us communicate between the developers and with the product team (if any) much more easily.

Ideally, in a good codebase, discussing the code and discussing the business model would entail very similar expressions, as the code would just be a literal (with caveats of course) representation of that business model. Hopefully this post showed how such a thing could be achieved.

This is a subject I really, really like and I'm hoping to keep writing about it.


  1. When refactoring, it's easy to get lost making increasingly minute improvements. We always gotta remember that premature optimization is the root of all evil and that abstractions can easily become unnecessary indirections. This is a fine line, and sometimes I don't spot it, so it's important to remember that the goal is to make the code more maintainable instead of perfect from the get go (which is impossible anyway). In an actual product, it also helps to remember what I think as the rule zero of Software Engineering: "fight for the users". If something we're doing won't improve the users' experience in any meaningful way, it might be best left alone. 

  2. This genetic algorithm in particular just iterates over populations that increasingly resemble the root word. 

  3. In my opinion, the naming of the root individual as self.word was a code smell born out of the usage of basic data types instead of proper abstractions. It was a way to hint at the developer that the comparison was between strings. Using proper types/classes, we no longer need to do that. 

  4. After all, "code is for what, tests are for why and comments are for jokes" (which is also a joke... or is it?) 

  5. If "improve the easiest thing first" is rule one of refactoring, then "do not, under any circumstance, change the contract" is rule zero of refactoring. To put it another way: if we have a good test suite, a proper refactoring shouldn't change the result of any test. Anything other than that is an actual change in the behavior of the application/system, and it better have been agreed upon.